By Alexa Sussmane.

Ricci Oddi Modern Art Gallery, a gallery in a small city of Passerini, Italy, made international news in December 2019 after the unexpected return of a Gustav Klimt painting which had been stolen from the same gallery twenty-three years earlier. Gardeners discovered Klimt’s “Portrait of a Lady” (1916-17) (the “Portrait” or the “Painting”) in an exterior wall of the gallery after noticing a metal panel in a crevice of the gallery’s garden wall.[1] It was reported that the painting was found undamaged and wrapped inside a bag within the wall.[2] The portrait has since by authenticated by experts.[3]

Shortly after this surprising discovery, two men admitted stealing and returning the Portrait in a letter to a local journalist.[4] The two men may be linked to dozens of other thefts in the area, including the theft of three hundred illuminated manuscripts from the Passerini-Landi Library in 1984.[5] The confessed thieves claimed to have returned the Painting “as a gift to the city”[6] four years before it was found. It is unclear what happened to the Portrait in the intervening years.[7]

The Ricci Oddi Gallery is a private museum, opened to the public in 1931 and founded upon the collection of Giuseppe Ricci Oddi.[8] The Klimt Painting has remained in the possession of the gallery since its return and is once again on display.[9] When asked if the gallery had received a payout from their insurance company at the time of the theft, the vice president of the Ricci Oddi Gallery, Laura Bonfanti, told The Art Newspaper: “I don’t know at this point. We’d need to check the documents from 22 years ago.”[10] As of today, this has not been disclosed. This story raises a series of questions, such as why was this Painting important, how was the theft orchestrated and why was the Painting returned.

Original theft

The theft of Klimt’s “Portrait of a Lady” occurred on February 22, 1997.[11] Police believe that the Portrait was stolen by lowering a fishing line from the roof of the gallery and pulling the Painting through the building’s skylight.[12] Sometime after the theft, the frame used to display the Klimt was found discarded on the roof of the galley.[13] The theft was not immediately noticed as the Painting had been moved in preparation for an exhibition highlighting the work.[14] The exhibition had been planned after an art student realized that the artist painted the “Portrait of a Lady” (1916-1917) over the “Portrait of a Young Woman” (1912), a work which had not been seen since 1912. This made the piece the only known “double Klimt.”[15] It has been theorized that Gustav Klimt took the unusual step of painting over the finished work in an attempt to cope with after the sudden death of the sitter, with whom Klimt was in love.[16]

Why return the Portrait?

As intriguing as the original theft was, the return of the Portrait was even more so, raising the question, why return the Painting? Why not sell it? The same attributes which made the Portrait valuable, would have made it difficult to sell once it was stolen. The cultural importance piece and the extraordinary method of theft meant that the theft would have been widely reported, particularly in the area surrounding the museum. It is likely that the thieves would have needed to find a buyer who was willing to purchase the piece knowing that it was stolen and therefore could not be easily resold or displayed.

It is possible to use stolen works as collateral for illegal activities but this may not have been possible for the thieves who took the Portrait. Just under seven years earlier, on March 18, 1990, an audacious theft occurred at the Isabella Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusets. During the Gardner heist (which occurred during Boston’s Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations), two thieves tied up the museum’s security guards and stole an estimated $200 million dollars worth of art, including paintings by Rembrandt and Vermeer.[17] It is widely believed that infamous Boston mob boss James “Whitey” Bulger was involved in the theft and that he stashed the paintings with associates in Ireland who were connected to the Irish Republican Army (IRA).[18] However, assuming that these thieves did not have connections to an international crime syndicate, as appears to have been the case with the Gardner theft, it would have been difficult for the thieves to secret the Portrait into the criminal underworld and use it to their commercial advantage.

In 2010, after five pieces by modern masters (including Matisse and Picasso) were stolen from the Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, the director of a nearby museum, Pierre Cornette de Saint Cyr, told the press “[t]hese five Paintings are unsellable, so thieves, sirs, you are imbeciles. Now return them.”[19]The FBI has confirmed that sentiment. In an article on the FBI’s website about an unrelated theft, Supervisory Special Agent Tim Carpenter of the FBI’s Art Crime Team was quoted as saying: “[w]ell documented and known art is very hard to move once it has been stolen.”[20]

Even if the thieves had managed to find a buyer who was unaware that the Portrait was stolen, it would still be hard to sell. Italian law imposes criminal penalties on both the buyer and seller of a stolen work if they fail to exercise the requisite caution. Lay buyers are required to act in good faith (without gross negligence or malice) at the time of purchase.[21] Italian law demands a higher standard of care for professional buyers depending on their level of expertise. The hypothetical buyer of the Portrait and the intermediary would risk a fine and up to six months in jail for buying a stolen work or facilitating the purchase.[22] Knowledge of the theft would not be required. A buyer or dealer would have committed a crime if they bought an item under conditions or at a price which would give a person reason to suspect that the item had been obtained as the result of a crime.[23] Buying a painting from a world-famous artist without proper documentation would certainty constitute suspicious circumstances.

It would be difficult for those who stole the Portrait to gain access to such an expert without coming to attention to themselves. The thieves would also need to provide provenance for the Portrait in order to prove its authenticity, i.e. the proof of its history as shown through documentary evidence about the past owners and past methods of transfer,[24] ideally going back to the work’s original creation and original sale. While there are often gaps in these records,[25] it would still be suspicious if the thieves were not able to provide any of this documentation. Obtaining forged provenance documents would require access to a person who could forge these documents to a high enough standard to fool professional researchers. This forgery is itself risky and difficult. For example, a Michigan art dealer was sentenced to forty-one months in prison for wire fraud for forging provenance documents for comparatively modern pieces. He was caught, in part, because he mistakenly added a zip code to the letterhead of one of the documents four years before zip codes began to be used in the United States.[26]

Authentication

A large part of the Portrait’s value lies in its status as a work of a famous and highly respected artist. Anyone who would be interested in purchasing the Portrait would have been dubious of a person who claimed to have the original as high-quality forgeries were known to exist. Three months after the theft, in April 1997, Italian authorities intercepted a package on the border of Italy and France which was addressed to the former Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi (who was living in hiding from law enforcement in Tunisia). While officials originally thought the package contained the Portrait, it was revealed to be a high-quality forgery.[27]

Learning their lesson, the Gallery undertook authentication of the Painting to ensure its genuineness. Generally, authentication begins with connoisseurship, in which an expert on either Klimt or work from the time period in which the work was created would compare the piece to other known works by the artist to determine if the work is consistent with the artist’s other work.[28]

Authentication also typically includes a technical authentication which provides evidence as to if a painting was created with the expected materials and at approximately at the time at which the artist is known to have made similar work.[29] The Portrait was confirmed as authentic on January 18, 2020, just over a month after its discovery. This double portrait being particularly unique, experts from the Institute for Cultural Heritage in Bologna used x-ray analysis to confirm that the work discovered in the wall contained “Portrait of a Young Lady” (1912) which was known to exist below the “Portrait of a Woman” (1916-1917).[30]

Why return the Portrait now?

Galleria Ricci Oddi, Italy. Credit: Yuri.zanelli / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

One of the most surprising aspects of this story is that the Portrait was returned so many years after the original theft. There has been speculation that the thieves were attempting to use the location of the Portrait to get a reduced sentence on unrelated burglary charges and that gardening staff found the piece before they had agreed to divulge its location.[31] They were able to do this because the statute of limitations for the original theft had long since passed. Under Italian criminal law, that statute of limitations is generally six years[32] from the date the crime was committed,[33] but can be up to nine years given certain extenuating circumstances which cause the trial to be delayed.[34] There is no statute of limitations for the most serious of crimes[35] such as kidnapping for the purpose of terrorism[36] or homicide with aggravating circumstances.[37]

The confessed thieves claimed to have returned the piece four years before its discovery. As the Portrait was found in December 2019, this places the alleged return in 2015, eighteen years after the original theft and well past the point at which the thieves could be held responsible for the crime under Italian law based on any additional evidence found on the Portrait. In contrast, this would have been before the end of the criminal statute of limitations in the United States. The statute of limitations in the United States is twenty years from the time of the theft[38] of a “object of cultural heritage.”[39] In order to qualify as an “object of cultural heritage” an object must be “over 100 years old and worth in excess of $5,000; or worth at least $100,000.”[40] The Portrait was worth millions of dollars at the time of the theft so the second criteria would be fulfilled.

The fact that the Portrait was returned may be an argument for Italy’s relatively short statute of limitations. However, similar returns of stolen art are rare and those that do occur often occur decades after the statute of limitations for the theft has passed. For example, in January 2020, five Old Master paintings, including a Rembrandt, were returned to Goatha, Germany, forty years after the original theft.[41] The return of the Old Master works appears to have little relation to Germany’s twelve year statute of limitations for the theft of such works.[42]

There are also benefits to the United States’ longer statute of limitations. It may take months or even years for thieves to contact owners and demand ransom for a piece.[43] Works of art which are found through means other than return are often found years after the original crime. For example, in 2018, the FBI recovered one of the pairs of ruby slippers used to film Wizard of Oz which had been stolen from the Judy Garland Museum in Minnesota in 2005.[44] There was still eight years left on the statute of limitations when the slippers were found. The longer statute of limitations may allow investigators to pursue suspects and prosecute offenders based on new evidence recovered from the slippers.

Conclusion

The market in stolen art is one of the most lucrative international black markets, third only to the trade in weapons and drugs.[45] Estimates based upon INTERPOL’s stolen art database place the global loss related to stolen art at $6 billion per year.[46] It may seem that once stolen, art disappears it is lost forever. The return of Klimt’s Portrait so many years after its original theft stands in contrast to this pessimism. As Jennifer Tate, former Head of Art Historical Research at the Tate Gallery, said in her book “Lost Art” “Negotiations to secure the return of stolen paintings may take years, or even decades, to conclude. But the expectation must be that these paintings will be returned one day, through one channel or another, to the museum and to the public that owns the works.”[47] As Klimt’s “The Portrait of a Young Lady” was found long after expectation of its recovery had evaporated, it provides hope that other lost masterpieces will also be found unharmed.

NOTE: published shortly after the anniversary of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Theft which occurred on March 18, 1990. More information about the Gardner Museum theft is available here.


Endnotes:

  1. Ritratto di signora di Gustav Klimt, Galleria d’Arte Moderna Ricci Oddi, http://riccioddi.it/ritratto-di-signora-di-gustav-klimt/ (last visited Mar. 13, 2020 2:08 pm).
  2. Angela Giuffrida, Klimt Art Thieves Confess to Stealing then Returning Painting, The Guardian (Jan. 21, 2020, 9:27 AM), https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2020/jan/21/klimt-art-thieves-confess-stealing-returning-painting-portrait-of-a-lady-italian-gallery.; Portrait of a Lady: Painting found in wall confirmed as stolen Klimt, BBC News (Jan. 17, 2009), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-51156682.
  3. Angela Giuffrida, Klimt Art Thieves Confess to Stealing then Returning Painting, The Guardian.
  4. Id.
  5. Angela Giuffrida, Klimt Art Thieves Confess to Stealing then Returning Painting, The Guardian.
  6. Angela Giuffrida, Klimt Art Thieves Confess to Stealing then Returning Painting, The Guardian.
  7. https://news.artnet.com/art-world/klimt-thieves-confess-to-returning-the-stolen-painting-found-by-gardeners-in-an-italian-gallery-1757958
  8. Galleria d’Arte Moderna Ricci Oddi, http://riccioddi.it/la-galleria (last visited Mar. 20, 2020 2:01 pm).
  9. Id. Naomi Rea, In a Twist, Two Serial Art Thieves Confess to Having Hidden Klimt’s ‘Portrait of a Lady’ Inside a Wall So That It Might Be Recovered, ArtNet News (January 21, 2020)
  10. Gareth Harris, Stolen ‘Klimt’ Found Hidden In A Wall Will Take A Month To Authenticate, Officials Say, The Art Newspaper (Dec. 12, 2019, 11:31 am), https://www.Theartnewspaper.com/news/missing-llimt-turns-up-in-hidden-wall-cavity-in-good-condition.
  11. Portrait of a Lady: Painting found in wall confirmed as stolen Klimt, BBC News.
  12. Angela Giuffrida, Klimt Art Thieves Confess to Stealing then Returning Painting, The Guardian
  13. Portrait of a Lady: Painting found in wall confirmed as stolen Klimt, BBC News.
  14. Id.
  15. Max Paradiso Piacenza, The mystery of the stolen Klimt, BBC News Magazine (Dec. 8, 2016), https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-38242917.
  16. Id.
  17. John Wilson, Murdered mob boss gave stolen Boston art to IRA, says former Met detective, The Guardian (Nov. 4, 2018 1:16 pm), https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/nov/04/whitey-bulger-linked-to-boston-art-heist-paintings-in-ireland.
  18. Id.
  19. Jennifer Mundy, Lost Art: Missing Artworks of the Twentieth Century 270-71 (Tate Publishing. 1st Ed. 2014).
  20. Stolen Art Returned: Chagall Oil Painting Recovered Nearly 30 Years After Heist, FBI News (April 12, 2018), https://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/chagall-oil-painting-recovered-nearly-30-years-after-heist-041218.
  21. Codice Civile (Italian Civil Code) §1176.
  22. Codice Penale Art. 712
  23. Id.
  24. Id. at 5-6.
  25. Id. at 6
  26. Forging Papers to Sell Fake Art, FBI News, (April 6, 2017), https://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/forging-papers-to-sell-fake-art.
  27. Portrait of a Lady: Painting found in wall confirmed as stolen Klimt, BBC News (Jan. 17, 2009), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-51156682.
  28. Responsible Art Market, Guidelines for Experts Authenticating Works of Fine Art, p. 5, http://responsibleartmarket.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Guidelines_FinalVersion_24.01.2020.pdf (last visited Mar. 13, 2020).
  29. Responsible Art Market, Guidelines for Experts Authenticating Works of Fine Art, p. 6-7.
  30. Alex Marshall, Klimt Painting Found in Museum’s Wall Is Authentic, Experts Say, NY Times (Jan. 17, 2020) https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/17/arts/design/portrait-of-a-lady-gustav-klimt.html.
  31. Angela Giuffrida, Klimt Art Thieves Confess to Stealing then Returning Painting, The Guardian.
  32. Codice Penale Art. 156.
  33. Codice Penale Art. 158.
  34. Codice Penale Art. 156.
  35. Id.
  36. Codice Penale Art. 289 bis.
  37. Codice Penale Art. 576. Examples of homicide with aggravating circumstances include murder of a family member and causing the death of a police officer while attempting to escape arrest. Id.
  38. 18 U.S.C.S. § 3294.
  39. 18 U.S.C.S. § 668.
  40. 18 U.S.C.S. §668 (2).
  41. Gareth Harris, Suspect List in Stolen Klimt Sage Grows, The Art Newspaper (Feb. 19, 2020), https://www.theartnewspaper.com/news/stolen-klimt-ricci-oddi.
  42. Jennifer Mundy, Lost Art: Missing Artworks of the Twentieth Century 263 (Tate Publishing. 1st Ed. 2014).
  43. Id.
  44. Art Crime: Stolen Ruby Slippers from The Wizard of Oz Recovered, FBI News (Sep. 4, 2018) https://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/stolen-ruby-slippers-recovered-090418.
  45. Kris Hollington, After Drugs and Guns, Art Theft Is the Biggest Criminal Enterprise in the World (July 22, 2014), https://www.newsweek.com/2014/07/18/after-drugs-and-guns-art-theft-biggest-criminal-enterprise-world-260386.html
  46. Data Analysis Reveals Some Shocking Art Theft Truths, Fox Rothschild LLP (April 3, 2018) https://artlaw.foxrothschild.com/2018/04/articles/art-recoverytheft-1/data-analysis-reveals-some-shocking-art-theft-truths/.
  47. Jennifer Mundy, Lost Art: Missing Artworks of the Twentieth Century 271 (Tate Publishing. 1st Ed. 2014).

About the Author: Alexa Sussmane is a Spring 2020 Intern at the Center for Art Law. She is in the Class of 2021 at the Cardozo School of Law and received her undergraduate degree in history from New York University. She can be reached at alsussma@law.cardozo.yu.edu.